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IAFOR Journal of Education 


Volume 5 


Spring 2017 


- Issue 1 - 


Respond to Diversity: Graduate Minority Students’ Perceptions on 
Their Learning Experiences in an American University 


Huanshu Yuan 


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Volume 5 - Issue 1 - Spring 2017 


Abstract 

The increasing population of minority students in higher education in the United States makes 
it relevant to focus on the issue of how to improve current educational philosophies, instruction 
and curriculum design, investment, and organization to meet the needs of minority students. A 
“teaching gap” between minority students’ learning needs and pedagogical responses to these 
needs exists in American postsecondary education. This qualitative research study addressed 
this knowledge gap by using five semi-structured interviews with five graduate education 
major minority students to examine their learning and the teaching practice of faculty in a 
specific university in the United States. The results of this study indicated that situating 
teaching and learning in a cultural context and improved faculty multicultural awareness were 
important to improve minority students’ learning experiences and academic outcomes. 

Keywords: multicultural education; culturally responsive teaching; teacher education; 
minority student learning; higher education. 


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Introduction 

Minority students have been struggling to experience educational equity and excellence in U.S. 
society and the educational system, in particular, to receive equal access to qualified 
educational resources and academic achievements as their White counterparts do (Banks, 2004). 
The increasing population of minority students in higher education in the United States makes 
it relevant to focus on how to improve current educational philosophies, instruction and 
curriculum design, investment, and organization to meet the need of minority students. 

Because of the increasing diversity in students’ cultural and racial backgrounds, research on 
minority students’ learning and achievement has increased over the past years (Schofield, 
2004). However, much of it leaves open the question of the causal direction of empirical li nk s 
found among minority students’ racial and cultural backgrounds, their academic performance 
and achievement, and refonns of educational policies and practices in the American 
educational system (Schofield, 2004). A “teaching gap” between minority students’ learning 
experiences - curriculum, pedagogy, interactions, and teachers’ pedagogical responses to them, 
exists in American higher education. This teaching gap plays an influential role in enhancing 
or reducing the likelihood of an achievement gap in higher education for linguistically and 
culturally diverse students. 

Tomorrow’s teachers and university faculty will need to be well prepared to effectively and 
appropriately deal with issues of race, culture, ethnicity, and language. The higher education 
systems, including teacher preparation programs, need to be more responsive to the needs of 
this growing segment of the student population (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). A more specific set 
of issues and possibilities in terms of teaching practices for multicultural students needs to be 
explored in more detail in higher education settings. Inequitable educational practices have 
been documented extensively in K-12 educational settings. But this source of the achievement 
gap has been less fully investigated in postsecondary learning environments (Villegas & Lucas, 
2002). As students from various minority backgrounds encounter curriculum that may not be 
framed in ways that resonate with them, pedagogy that is insensitive to their cultural 
backgrounds and assumptions, faculty attitudes and expectations that reflect destructive 
stereotypes, or other aspects of the learning environment, they may not perform up to their 
potential, thereby continuing a systematic disparity in performance between them and their 
white counterparts. 


Literature Review 

Four bodies of research and theory inform this study, each offering different components to the 
research. These are: teaching attitudes, positive interactions, culturally responsive pedagogy, 
and content integration, and are depicted visually in Figure 1. 


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Figure 1: Conceptual framework 

Some academic research and teacher preparation programs, in general, have viewed students 
of color as genetically inferior, culturally deprived, and verbally deficient (Delpit, 1995). Issues 
of teaching attitudes towards minority students are enacted in postsecondary academic 
environments, in teaching practice and curriculum design in particular. Previous scholarship 
on “racial and ethnic studies of minority students’ achievement and attainment in U.S. higher 
education” evoke the reconsideration of the causes of variability in educational gaps among 
linguistically diverse students and their White counterparts. An important factor which results 
in minority students’ comparatively lower academic achievements is destructive teaching 
attitudes and stereotyped expectations towards students’ cultural and racial backgrounds. 
Scholarship on these negative teaching attitudes and expectations are grounded in critical race 
theory. 

Effective learning requires active peer interactions and positive interactions between students 
and teachers. The culturally and linguistically diverse university classroom is at risk of 
developing inequities on the basis of difference in student status and teachers’ position of 
authority (Cohen & Lotan, 2004). For example, minority students arrive with varied 
educational experiences and English proficiencies; this situation leads to variation in their 
academic skills, perfonnances and differences in academic success. Many teachers in 
university settings are distressed to observe that newcomers and some minority students are 
virtual non participants in class discussions and activities (Cohen & Lotan, 2004), as many 
minority students have a hard time voicing their opinions and maximizing learning outcomes. 

Allport (1954) suggests that the support of authorities and positive equal-status relationships 
and interactions among students of all ethnic and racial groups are vital to producing academic 
achievement. This finding has implications for increasing positive classroom interactions. 
Teachers are important authority figures, who can facilitate positive interactions among 
minority students and their White peers by using cooperative learning and alternative grouping 
strategies (Schofield, 2004). Teachers can also promote linguistic and cultural pluralism in the 


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academic learning environment for encouraging minority students’ identity development and 
learning processes. 

Content integration deals with the extent to which teachers use examples, materials, data, and 
information from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, 
generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline (Banks, 2004). Gay (2004) 
extends the notion of systematic change in teaching content and materials by identifying 
significant ways of embedding culturally relevant components in curriculum and learning 
materials. These include designing curricula that develop understanding of ethnic groups’ 
cultures, histories, and contributions; teachers becoming multicultural in their attitudes, values, 
beliefs, and behaviors; and using action strategies for combating racism and other forms of 
oppression and exploitation. 

In addition to recognizing that minority students bring rich funds of knowledge to their higher 
education learning experiences, faculty in university settings can do much to modify their 
approaches to instruction. Educational equity and excellence for students from all ethnic, racial 
and cultural backgrounds in the United States are unattainable without the incorporation of 
cultural and racial pluralism in all aspects of the educational system. Educational practice, as 
Gay (2004) argues, plays a key role in reducing institutional racism and achievement gaps, as 
well as rebuilding minority students’ self-esteem, identities and learning engagements. 
Culturally responsive pedagogy exists when teachers use cultural heritage and background 
experience to facilitate students’ academic achievement (Gay, 2010; Banks, 2004). Addressing 
culturally responsive pedagogy also contributes to mutual understandings between minority 
students and teachers, valuing diverse cultural and racial heritages, and enabling diverse 
students to realize their potentials. 


Methodology 

The research was a short-tenn, qualitative study, which incorporated five semi-structured 
interviews in a specific university setting. The research followed a “basic” interpretive design 
(Merriam, 2009), which sought to understand the interaction of individuals with the culture of 
the academic learning environment and university context in which they lived and studied. It 
is a particularly appropriate way to pursue how minority students interpret their learning 
experiences, how they see racial and cultural impact on academic instruction and peer 
interactions, what factors benefit their learning, and what issues exclude them from effective 
learning and academic achievement. 

Due to the research emphasis, the setting of this research was the University of Washington. 
Participants from the College of Education were chosen due to the rich diversity of students 
and faculty from different cultural and racial backgrounds within the teacher preparation and 
education programs at the University of Washington. The five participants were College of 
Education master and doctorate degree minority students. Five interviews provided 
opportunities for the voices of research participants to be heard, cultural and racial identities to 
be valued, and multiple needs to be fulfilled. Participants enrolled in the College of Education 
graduate program were selected according to their multicultural and linguistic backgrounds 
(English was not the native language), in order to demonstrate how racial and cultural factors 
contribute to their learning processes and outcomes. 

A demographic summary of the participants is presented in Table 1. Due to the confidentiality 
agreements with research participants, all the names are pseudonyms. 


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Table 1: Demographic summary of study participants 


Name 

Nationality 

Age 

First 

Language 

Gender 

Program 

Previous 

Academic 

Studies 

Grade 

Level 

Sunny 

South 

Korea 

31 

Korean 

Female 

Curriculum 

& 

Instruction 

South 

Korea 

2 nd year 

doctorate 

student 

Ken 

Chile 

29 

Spanish 

Male 

Teacher 

Education 

Chile 

3 ld year 

doctorate 

student 

Peter 

Thailand 

28 

Thai 

Male 

Educational 

Psychology 

Thailand & 
U.S. 

2 nd year 

doctorate 

student 

Amy 

Hong Kong 

30 

Cantonese 

Female 

Teacher 

Education 

Hong 

Kong & 

U.S. 

2 nd year 
master 

student 

Mary 

Mainland 

China 

25 

Mandarin 

Female 

Curriculum 

& 

Instruction 

Mainland 

China 

2 nd year 
master 

student 


Discussion 

Four major findings resulted from this study. The first finding was the misinterpretation of 
minority students’ learning styles and cultural knowledge between faculty and students. The 
second finding was a lack of culturally diverse representation and responsiveness in learning 
materials and teaching practice. The third finding was the cross-cultural self in interactions. 
The fourth finding was a disparity in teacher preparation and practice in higher education. 

Personality or Culture: Misinterpretation of Minority Students’ Learning Styles and 
Cultural Knowledge between Faculty and Students 

All five research participants indicated that they experienced a gap between their personal and 
cultural knowledge and mainstream academic knowledge. The concepts, explanations, and 
interpretations that students derive from personal experiences in their home, family, and 
community cultures constitute personal and cultural knowledge (Banks, 1996), which could be 
challenged by mainstream White dominant academic knowledge. Four of the five research 
participants’ learning styles, communication styles, and in-class performance styles were 
deeply influenced by Asian-oriented cultural heritages and educational backgrounds. Instead 
of actively participating in class discussions, frequently speaking out their ideas in front of the 
whole class, questioning and challenging professor and classmates’ opinions, and taking on 
leading roles in group assignments, Asian students were used to listening, memorizing, and 
following directions and requirements. As Sunny mentioned: 

During the past 29 years of studying in Korea, I was educated and trained to be obedient 
and submissive to my professors’ instructions and requirements. In my home culture 
and school culture, students are required to listen to and memorize every word from 
textbooks and their professors. I am so used to accepting and memorizing everything 
from my professor, and it is my learning style and it is also my culture. It is in my blood 
and so hard to change even now I’m starting my doctoral program in America. 


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The cultural differences between students and faculties lead to cultural discontinuity in the U.S. 
higher educational environment. Failing to realize this may result in the cultural clash and 
limiting minority students’ academic development. Minority students’ cultural heritage and 
personal experiences not only construct their identity but also influence their learning, 
communicating, and academic performing styles in U.S. classrooms. Fordham and Ogbu 
(1986) indicated that minority students will experience academic difficulties in the school 
because of the ways that cultural knowledge within their home and cultural community 
conflicts with academic knowledge, nonns, and expectations in mainstream classrooms. In 
higher education, especially in graduate programs, the population of enrolled minority students 
is scarce in comparison with their White counterparts. These demographic differences and 
related cultural mismatches can lead to minority students being misrepresented for their whole 
ethnic group based on the misreading of their in-class perfonnance. 

This issue of misrepresentation can reinforce negative teaching attitudes and practices toward 
minority students, which could create a cultural deficit model. As Mary stated: “I realize that 
some of my professors may be aware that Chinese students’ learning styles and in class 
performance patterns are grounded in traditional Chinese culture, which emphasizes being 
polite and listening rather than speaking out. So they will assume every Chinese student follow 
this pattern and they will no longer have high expectations for my Chinese classmates and me. 
They won’t expect us to play a leader role in group projects and I can feel the “expectation 
distance” from professors between me and my White American classmates.” 

Peter was frustrated about being perceived as a silent Asian student. He said, “Some professors 
categorized me as a quite student based on my Asian appearance and their previous culturally 
stereotyped assumptions towards Asian students’ behaviors in class. It hurts sometimes. 
Although Asian students may have generally quite personalities, but that cannot fully represent 
every student and every Asian culture.” 

Misinterpretations of minority students’ learning and performance styles illustrate a 
disconnection between teachers’ and students’ personal and cultural knowledge. Mainstream 
academic knowledge is more consistent with the cultural experiences of White middle-class 
students than those of most other ethnic groups, so it is important for faculty to understand and 
include the personal and cultural knowledge of minority students when designing the 
curriculum, teaching strategies and assignments for today’s multicultural classrooms (Banks, 
1996). Moreover, it is equally important for university faculty to obtain knowledge about 
cultural and racial diversity to reduce culturally mismatched teaching attitudes and practices in 
increasingly culturally diverse classrooms. 

Content or Context: Lacking Culturally Diverse Representation and Responsiveness In 
Learning Materials and Teaching Practice 

All five research participants indicated that they encountered learning materials and 
assignments that were not culturally relevant and responsive. The missing voices from their 
cultural backgrounds and racial heritages created a cultural vacuum for them in the university. 
Ken indicated that he had a very hard time reading textbooks and often learning materials in 
several classes that did not relate to his culture or contain international perspectives. He stated, 
“In one teaching pedagogy class, I found that my perspectives and knowledge were constructed 
and limited in Western, or American focused-context. I wanted to hear international voices and 
learned more cases from my cultural backgrounds so that I could obtain professional 


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knowledge and be able to practice it when I return to my home country. But I seldom read 
materials or textbooks that reflect cultural diversity or are relevant to my home culture.” 

The absence of cultural responsiveness and relevance in learning materials not only impacts 
minority students’ construction of ethnic identity and cultural belongingness, but also shapes 
their access to academic opportunities, involvements and achievements. Amy shared how 
cultural mismatch affected her learning process and outcomes in her graduate program. She 
said: 


If learning materials and assignments are totally constructed on American culture or 
history, that will create an invisible cultural barrier for me to approach the content 
knowledge and engage in discussions. For example, in my first quarter of the graduate 
program, we were assigned to discuss Jim Crow case and its historical influences on 
educational policy. Being a cultural outsider, I was not so familiar with the American 
educational system and policies. It was hard to join in my American classmates’ 
discussions. All those names, cases, laws became simple English words, which didn’t 
make sense to me. 

Content knowledge, curriculum, and teaching materials in higher education settings may 
exclude and marginalized minority students. Most of the students interviewed claimed that 
their cultural knowledge and heritage were not validated or well presented in textbooks, 
curriculum and other learning materials used in university classes. When separated from 
cultural context, content knowledge can be obstacles that minimize the learning processes and 
outcomes of minority students. Dilg (2003) noted that it is important for teachers to realize the 
ways in which minority students’ cultural backgrounds and educational experiences affect how 
they understand and respond to learning materials and assignments. Faculty and students in 
teacher education programs need to learn how to reduce cultural distance for minority students. 
Dilg (2003) also indicated that students may connect deeply with a work based on connections 
they perceive between learning material and their own cultures, or reject it on the basis of its 
lack of “cultural fit” (p. 47). 

Amy suggested incorporating culture to learning materials and teaching practices as she 
explained that, “If I can feel connections and reflections between my home culture and subject 
matter content, I will leam better and with more confidence and active engagement.” The 
connection between learning materials, subject content, teaching practice and students’ cultural 
backgrounds need to exist, so that a “safe cultural space” (Dilg, 2003, p. 48) can be created to 
reduce gaps between minority students and their academic learning materials, practices, and 
environments. 

Misplaced Cross-Cultural Self in Interactions 

The students interviewed shared feelings of being isolated from their instructors and American 
peers by language, academic talk, structured diversity, cultural preference, and classroom 
climate. Students who are not English native speakers indicated that their English proficiencies 
and non-native pronunciation separated them from their American counterparts and university 
faculty. Mary recalled that: “English can be a form of segregation which singles me out because 
of my Chinese accent. Language itself can create significant challenges or biases. For example, 
some of my instructors may misread my academic abilities and interaction patterns as a result 
of the differences in styles of language uses and proficiencies.” 


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Another problem related to language is “academic talk” in classrooms. As Dilg (2003) 
explained, language can define, divide, embarrass, exclude, isolate, or draw together minority 
students, faculty and their White American peers at school. Furthermore, the cultural meanings 
behind the language used also makes a difference in minority students’ learning processes and 
interactions with instructors. Peter provided an example of this when he first heard the 
expression, “the elephant in the room” in his class. All the American students immediately 
understood and responded appropriately. Peter added, “So I have to pretend I understand, in 
order to show I am listening and engaging. But this happens a lot in my studies. Instructors’ 
styles of questioning and other academic instructions and talks may not always make sense to 
me because they are not just about English language; it’s more about culture behind the 
language.” Many students interviewed said they frequently encountered academic jargon that 
blocked their responses and understandings. This culturally embedded language barrier can 
mislead university faculty in their assumptions about minority students’ interaction patterns, 
academic performance, and learning outcomes. 

Structured diversity in graduate level classes at the research site presented another challenge 
for the interviewed students. According to Bennett (2004), structured diversity means the racial 
and ethnic diverse students and faculty representation in a particular institutional setting. The 
perception of racial and cultural diversity may increase or reduce cultural prejudices and 
tensions among students and faculties. All five students interviewed indicated that they 
expected to see more colleagues, classmates and faculty who “look like us”, and thus secure 
their sense of cultural belonging, as well as building a safe and culturally familiar academic 
environment. This feeling was similarly conveyed by Peter, Ken, Mary and Amy. As Amy 
stated, “If the university’s faculty team could have more faculties of color, or from my cultural 
background, I will be more comfortable, because they speak my language and could understand 
me, as well as be able to provide culturally responsive teaching practice and companionship to 
support my academic development and ethnic identity construction.” 

A House United or Divided: A Disparity in Teacher Preparation and Practice in Higher 
Education 

The students who participated in this study recognized that misconnections existed. They noted 
that teacher education programs and university faculty were lacking multicultural courses and 
materials needed to educate in culturally responsive ways. This absence of culturally 
responsive content and contexts overweighed the subject content knowledge, or “professional 
skill” training. It caused a problem easily identified by the five research participants as: Some 
professors are experts in their scholarly fields, but they are not very good at transmitting their 
academic knowledge and content knowledge to culturally diverse students. 

Ken, as a third year doctoral student in teacher education, expressed his concern regarding lack 
of multicultural content and training in his program as follows: 

Many teacher education students or professors may not have had the multicultural 
learning experiences which are necessary to break the conservative assumptions 
underlying teacher education at mainly higher education institutions. Lacking sufficient 
training in terms of culturally responsive teaching or multicultural education, 
prospective faculties may not be aware of the importance of cultural diversity, racial 
differences and their impacts on minority students’ learning processes and identity 
constructions. This institutionalized traditional teacher education model will negatively 
reinforce inequitable teaching practices for culturally diverse students. 


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Mary and Sunny also addressed missing cross-cultural or multicultural education context and 
content in teacher education and faculty preparation. As Mary indicated: 

As prospective teachers or university professors, we are educated by what our professors 
know about education and instruction, and we will teach our future students in the way 
we are trained in the institution. If our instructors are lacking awareness and systematic 
training of culturally responsive teaching, how can their teaching practices become 
culturally responsive? And we are rarely seeing faculty preparation or training about 
teaching in a multicultural context. The university or higher education institutions are 
deeply impacted by the taken-for-granted belief that professors are experts and they can 
teach effectively. But this may not always work as well as they expect. 

The students interviewed agreed with Goodwin (1997) that attitudes and practices and the lack 
of progress in the area of prompting multicultural teacher education should be re-examined. 
They also felt that inequitable teacher preparation in higher education is closely associated with 
their inequitable teaching practices that, in turn, expand gaps in the academic achievement of 
cultural and racial minority and majority classmates. Thus, systematic improvement in teacher 
preparation and faculty teaching practices are needed to address these concerns. 

Conclusion 

This research indicates a teacher preparation-teaching practice gap in U.S. higher education, 
especially among university faculties with increasing numbers of ethnic minority students in 
class. Teaching effectiveness in graduate level classes is traditionally defined by professional 
content knowledge, instead of the equal concern for faculty attitudes, curriculum design, 
teaching practice, and interaction with multicultural students. These missing components result 
in inequitable teaching practice and broaden academic achievement gaps between ethnic 
minority students and their White peers. This situation provokes the need for a re¬ 
conceptualization of teacher education in a multicultural educational context to include 
culturally responsive perspectives and practices in higher education. Through exploring the 
lack of multicultural concerns in teacher education and teaching practice in one university 
college of education, this study proposes the following suggestions for raising prospective 
teachers and university faculty’s awareness of teaching for diversity. 

Diversify Teaching Materials and Situate Teaching Practice in Diverse Cultural Contexts 

Diverse students’ personal and cultural knowledge and experiences are not addressed 
sufficiently and positioned adequately in the mainstream academic environment. The cultural, 
racial, linguistic, and knowledge diversity in this university’s academic environment calls for 
faculties to reduce the discontinuity between what minority students experience and how they 
have been educated in their home cultural and educational contexts, and what they experience 
in university classrooms and how. In order to achieve academic success, minority students need 
to study in an academic environment that facilitates their cultural identity and competence 
development, when they encounter positive and culturally aware teaching attitudes, and action; 
receive real-life connections and cultural relevance from learning materials and curricula; and 
experience alternative and culturally responsive pedagogy and interactions with their faculties 
and classmates. 


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Rethink How to Prepare Faculties for Diversity, and Increase Diverse Representation 
among Faculties 

An important mission of teacher education is improving teacher candidates’ professional 
content knowledge and teaching strategies, as well as promoting educational excellence and 
equity. One of the major aims of teacher education should be to assist teachers to develop the 
attitudes, knowledge, and skills needed to become thoughtful and approachable for every 
student in the multicultural academic environment. To achieve this goal, appropriate and 
comprehensive training to foster positive teaching attitudes towards diversity and the 
deconstruction of teaching stereotypes and biases is needed. This present study supports this 
suggestion especially academic teaching for university level teacher education programs to 
foster positive attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Moreover, increasing the diversity of university 
professors can benefit and strengthen teacher awareness of multicultural issues, and can reduce 
the sense of cultural isolation among teacher candidates of color, and cultural insensitivity 
among White candidates. 

Preparing Culturally Responsive Faculty and Adding Cultural Components in Teaching 
Practice 

Adding cultural components in teacher training and promoting faculty cultural competence to 
better serve culturally diverse students are crucial steps toward improving university teaching 
practice. It is essential for teacher education programs to present teaching as an intellectual and 
cultural activity, as well as to develop productive perspectives about the interactions among 
race, culture, class, and schooling (Cochran-Smith, 2000). Teacher education programs need 
to modify content to support collaboration between faculty and teacher candidates in acquiring 
culturally responsive teaching skills for practice in schools. 

This research study offers a perspective on making prospective teachers and university faculty 
aware of engaging more effectively with the diverse student populations. This study also 
advocates increasing culturally diverse components in teacher education beyond only 
mainstream culture and knowledge-focused content to multicultural perspectives and 
experiences to maximize efforts to improve the quality of teacher education programs, teaching 
practice, and student performance in higher education. This study takes a step towards creating 
a pathway to establishing campus climates and academic environments of teacher education 
programs where “students of every cultural and racial background feel welcome and are 
encouraged to reach their highest potential, as well as receive academic achievements” 
(Bennett, 2004, p. 864). 


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Corresponding author: Huanshu Yuan 
Email: yuanshelly67@gmail.com 


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